RICHIE McCaw, possibly the greatest rugby player in history, belongs to an exclusive club that Harare-born Takudzwa Ngwenya may feel slightly hard-done-by not to be part of.
By Enock Muchinjo
Ngwenya is, of course, best remembered for his try of the tournament at the 2007 World Cup in France, running around Springbok icon Bryan Habana with an display of footwork and skill to score for his adopted country, the United States.
At 34, Ngwenya is still officially active as a professional rugby player, now strutting his stuff on the American domestic scene after a fruitful career in Europe, parading his talents for a decade in the French club set-up.
The flying winger has, however, been overlooked by the US in their 31-man squad for the forthcoming World Cup in Japan, probably signalling the end of a 11-year international career which yielded 36 Test caps.
It would have been a fourth World Cup appearance for Ngwenya — joining on that mark no less greats of the game than Sir Richie, Jason Leonard, Schalk Burger, George Gregan and Keven Mealamu.
It is no mean feat to even come close to a fourth Rugby World Cup, the highest mark that any individual can possibly reach in any major sport. Australia utility back Adam Ashley-Cooper, who will be playing in his fourth World Cup in Japan, will become just the second Wallaby to ever do so after the legendary 1999 World Cup-winning captain Gregan.
Ngwenya’s fourth will never come in the wake of his omission by the US from Japan 2019, but what a journey it has been for him, flirting with greatness and leaving behind fond memories.
A common narrative that however surrounds Ngwenya back in his native Zimbabwe is that — for someone who left this country an unknown quantity and went through schooling at Vainona High unnoticed — it is hard to claim him as one of our own.
Come to think of it, though, that Ngwenya is not the only player with roots in Zimbabwe to leave a mark at the World Cup in the colours of another nation.
Is it coincidental that George Gregan — one of those Ngwenya would have joined on the illustrious four World Cups list — also has Zimbabwean blood running through his veins?
Quite clearly, it is no accident because when you look at the statistics, you will see that apart from the World Cups in which this nation was represented by our own national team in 1987 and 1991, there has been Zimbabwean flavour in every other edition since then.
Japan 2019 will be no exception either with news this week that Springbok Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and Wallaby David Pocock will be going to their third and most likely last World Cups after being included in the squads of South Africa and Australia respectively.
So while the Sables were Africa’s sole representative in the first two Rugby World Cups in 1987 and 1991, it has hard to keep Zimbabwean-grown talent out of the game’s biggest showpiece — something that testifies to quality rugby talent in this country.
With surprise package Côte d’Ivoire securing Africa’s single qualification slot at the World Cup in 1995, Gregan was there for the Aussies, making sure there was some Zimbabwean presence in the tournament and he would feature again in 2003—also without support from anyone from his mother’s homeland.
The Bulawayo-born pair of Bobby Skinstad and Adrian Garvey were in the mix for South Africa in 1999 and they would have been joined by a third, Gweru-born Gary Teichmann, had the steely eighthman and ex-Bok captain not controversially axed by coach Nick Mallett six months before the tournament.
As for Garvey, he had in fact played in the World Cup for Zimbabwe eight years earlier in 1991, the only player in history to have achieved such a unique feat for two counties.
Skinstad and Ngwenya were there in France in 2007 before the US tearaway was joined by fellow Zimbabwean expatriates Mtawarira and Pocock for the last two World Cup editions in New Zealand and England in 2011 and 2015.
Speaking of multiple World Cup selections, not to be forgotten is an even special bunch of men who did it twice — in the colours of Zimbabwe.
After starring for the Sables in 1987, five out of 31 Zimbabwe players — Richard Tsimba, Alex Nicholls, Michael Martin, Craig Brown and Andy Ferreira — made the squad again for the next World Cup in 1991.
Zimbabwe has not returned to the game’s greatest stage ever since. Mtawarira and Pocock will be singing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika and Advance Australia Fair in Japan in a month’s time, but they will at least keep the Zimbabwean fire burning for yet another World Cup since the Sables first opened Africa’s account at the inaugural edition in 1987.